|photo by Ashley Crouch|
We all have religious experiences.
We all experience that most basic and universal phenomenon: wonder and awe. We experience the presence of a goddess or god, of our ancestors, or of the spirits of Nature. We experience the Unity of All. We have dreams, visions, or intuitions. We see omens and auspices.
These experiences happen to everyone. But an experience in isolation has no meaning. It is simply data: a collection of observations and sensations. We give our experiences meaning when we interpret them, and how we interpret them – or if we even recognize them – depends largely on our beliefs. Our beliefs, in turn, are dependent on our practices and on our spiritual foundations.
Have you built a spiritual foundation to support your religious experiences? This is more important than you may realize. I takes mindful effort to NOT interpret your experiences. If your brain doesn’t have the frame of reference it needs it will grab whatever it has: a religion you left but whose hooks are still in your subconscious, a foundation that says there is nothing beyond the material world, a framework taken from a movie or TV show.
A Pagan spiritual foundation is a little harder to build than say, a Buddhist foundation or a Christian foundation. This is primarily because Paganism is a much newer religion. Designing foundations and frameworks is the job of theologians, and so far modern Paganism hasn’t produced very many theologians. But it can be done, and it needs to be done.
There are four major areas where Pagans need enough knowledge to be able to interpret their experiences.
We need a foundation in science. Paganism is, in part if not in whole, a Nature religion. Science is knowledge of the natural world. If we truly love Nature, we will want to know as much about Nature as we can. We need a basic knowledge of biology – what was called “life science” when I was in 7th grade a million years ago. We need an understanding of evolution, which supports the interrelatedness of all life. We need a basic understanding of the origin of the Universe.
We encounter a lot of bad science in the religious world, from New Agers with quack ideas about “energy” to fundamentalists who are willfully ignorant about evolution. We don’t need a PhD in physics, but we do need to be able to tell real science from misinformation and misinformation from garbage and lies.
We need a foundation in history. When asked to define Paganism, I usually give a three-fold definition that includes “a resonance with the beliefs and practices of our pre-Christian ancestors.” That presupposes we know a thing or two about what our ancestors believed and did. I grew up being taught that history began with Adam and Eve and went from there to Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Jesus and Paul. It wasn’t until I was long out of school and reading history on my own that I realized this “history” was as much mythology as fact, and more importantly, that it was the story of one small group of people.
We need to know as much as we can about the origins of humanity and what life was like for the Stone Age hunter-gatherers responsible for cave paintings and objects like Venus of Willendorf. We need to know as much as we can about the origins of civilization and the religions that began with civilization. We need to know as much as we can about our ancestors who first worshipped the Celtic, Norse, Greek, Roman and other gods and goddesses whose worship we are reviving and reimagining.
We need to know as much as we can about the origins of the modern Pagan religions of Wicca, Druidry, Heathenry and others. The last 15 or 20 years have seen an explosion of real Pagan scholarship. That scholarship has frightened some, but to our credit most Pagans understand that we gain nothing by clinging to myth-as-history when those myths are shown to be incorrect.
We need a foundation in tradition. I know, I know – religious liberals in general and Pagans in particular are suspicious of anything that smells like establishment and orthodoxy. But one of the advantages of being second or third generation Pagans (or second or third century Druids) is that we don’t have to figure out everything for ourselves. There are deities, holidays, correspondences, liturgies and other elements of religion that are readily available. There are techniques, symbols, concepts and myths that have been built up for decades that we can draw on. Instead of starting at the beginning, we can start where our predecessors left off. This lets us go even further and deeper, which in turn builds a stronger foundation for the generation that comes after us.
While we don’t have to figure out everything for ourselves, we do have to validate everything ourselves. As the Buddha taught, don’t believe something just because someone “important” says it. But non-fundamentalist religions are notoriously utilitarian – if something doesn’t work, it’s likely to be discarded. It may be that some hundred-year-old practice doesn’t work in 2012, or it simply doesn’t work for you. If so, try something else. But give tradition the benefit of the doubt.
We need a foundation in practice. Though belief is important in any religion, Paganism is first and foremost a religion of practice. Spiritual practice reinforces our beliefs and facilitates religious experiences.
As with tradition, we don’t have to reinvent the proverbial wheel. There are plenty of people and books that can teach us meditation, prayer, journaling, devotion, rituals, visualization and other practices. Try to find a teacher or resource within your path. Buddhist meditation is not the same as Christian meditation and neither is the same as Pagan meditation.
Now that I’ve presented the case for building a good spiritual foundation I’d like to explain my motivation. Last weekend a friend asked me for my opinion of a not-unknown author and teacher. I’m not going to name this teacher and I’m going to do my best not to drop any hints – my purpose is to emphasize the need for a strong spiritual foundation, not to bash this particular person.
After reading their website and looking over their books something became very apparent to me. Many years ago this person had a very strong religious experience… most likely a series of experiences. But when they tried to interpret them, they didn’t have a good spiritual foundation. So they interpreted their experiences through what they knew, which in this case was fantasy literature. Over the years they’ve built up a whole system of belief and practice that has more in common with works of fiction than with what Wiccans, Druids and other Pagans believe and do.
Call me gullible, but I think this person is sincere and not just trying to make money off people who desperately want fantasy to be real. If they had been able to interpret their experiences through a modern Pagan framework – or even through a mystical Christian framework – I think they could have made a nice contribution to our overall religious movement. Instead, they have a small, cultish following and the general disdain of people who should be their allies.
Build a spiritual foundation. Ground yourself in science, history, tradition and practice. Build on the work of those who’ve gone before you. Then let your experiences add to our collective knowledge and wisdom.